Why NZ needs a re-think on Antarctica

A shifting global order is changing Antarctica, and New Zealand needs to respond, academic Anne-Marie Brady says. David Williams reports.

It was called Ministerial on Ice.

In 1999, New Zealand’s Associate Foreign Minister Simon Upton invited signatories to the Antarctic Treaty for a meeting to the icy continent. Twenty-four ministers or deputy ministers accepted, a sign of New Zealand’s clout on southern polar issues.

Part of the discussions was about a relatively new protocol to the Treaty, ratified the previous year, which ushered in strict environmental management rules. New Zealand had proposed new environmental plans for areas of the Ross Dependency – this country’s claim to 15 percent of Antarctica – which needed special protection.

You can almost hear the relief in Upton’s 1998 press statement on the protocol. “We have set in place a robust framework and guidelines for the management of activities by all New Zealand visitors to the Ross Dependency. We will continue to show strong leadership and demonstrate the highest standards of environmental stewardship in this most important region of Antarctica.”

Drilling for oil and gas in the Southern Ocean, particularly in the Ross Sea, was seen as the major threat – a threat the protocol appeared to scupper. What wasn’t foreseen back then was the spread of satellite navigation stations and greater interest by a broader range of countries in having a presence in Antarctica – not just for climate change research – paired with a global shift in power.

Antarctica is now strategically important to more countries than ever. A leading academic says it’s time for the Government to coordinate and sharpen its Antarctic policies, and reclaim the country’s leadership in polar international relations.

Clash of values, interests

University of Canterbury professor Anne-Marie Brady is best known for her work on China. But she’s also a polar politics specialist who, in 2011, co-founded The Polar Journal, published in the United Kingdom. She remains the international journal’s executive editor.

Brady has edited a just-released book, Small States and the Changing Global Order. In it she writes a chapter on the implications of Antarctic geopolitics on New Zealand’s foreign policy.

Her paper paints a picture of an already challenging picture becoming more difficult. A resource-rich continent, whose currency has been the money countries spend on scientific research, has traditionally been dominated by the United States – which has the biggest base, McMurdo, and the largest presence there. (New Zealand’s programme relies on the US for logistics and air transport.)

In recent years there’s been a spread of new bases, including China’s fifth, and the use of technology with both civil and military applications. The Treaty restricts military activities to “peaceful purposes”. Unfortunately, this clash of values and interests is governed by a treaty that has little oversight into activities on the ice, and little enforcement for rule-breakers.

Russia and China have shifted gears in global foreign policy, including in Antarctica. On the ice, funding scientific programmes is a way to establish political influence, while the physical building of bases enables effective control over Antarctic territory.

That puts New Zealand’s Antarctic interests at risk, Brady argues.

“If Antarctica becomes a site of strategic competition then that has immediate impact on New Zealand’s security – and it is increasingly becoming a site of strategic competition.”

Space race at the southern pole

The United States built global positioning system (GPS) ground stations in Antarctica in 1995, taking advantage of the Treaty’s system of undetermined sovereignty. (The State Department website says the US “and most other countries” don’t recognise the territorial claims of Argentina, Australia, Chile, France, New Zealand, Norway, and the United Kingdom.)

China and Russia are now following the US by building GLONASS and Beidou ground stations in Antarctica – something Brady calls a “game-changer for their ability to project power”. All these satellite navigation systems have military applications.

(The New Zealand military relies on GPS, which makes it difficult for this country to take the moral high ground in Antarctic discussions. Brady adds: “New Zealand-based ground stations are used to spy on Antarctic communications, as part of the US-led Five Eyes system.”)

Brady’s paper says: “The activities of major nuclear powers who use their Antarctic bases to control offensive weapons systems and relay signals intelligence has the potential to shift the strategic balance which has maintained peace in the Asia-Pacific for nearly 70 years.”

That leaves the Antarctic Treaty with the “air of a gentleman’s club that is out of sync with present-day geopolitics”, the paper says.

It’s not just about ground stations, Brady tells Newsroom. Neither is it just about competition between the US and China or Russia. “It’s that Antarctica is interesting to lots more countries now and things that New Zealand cares about – like the wilderness values, or peace in Antarctica with the continent not being the site of military contention – are being challenged now.”

Since 2011 Malaysia, Pakistan, Mongolia, Kazakhstan, and Iceland have signed the Treaty. Turkey and Iran have announced plans to establish Antarctic bases. It’s fair to question their agenda.

Meanwhile, a marine-protected area for the Ross Sea offers scant protection against illegal fishing and there’s no cap on tourists. (Just over 58,000 tourists visited Antarctica in the 2017-18 summer season, compared with 4000 scientists conducting research there.)

Brady: “We need to do an assessment of what’s going on and work out New Zealand’s strategy to protect our interests.”

Unclear, uncoordinated

New Zealand’s approach to Antarctica is piecemeal, Brady says.

On the one hand, the New Zealand Defence Force – a crucial part of the country’s Antarctic programme – is buying an ice-strengthened offshore patrol vessel, an ice-strengthened navy tanker, and four Poseidon maritime patrol planes. Last year’s strategic defence policy statement backed the Antarctic Treaty, but said there was “difficulty in distinguishing between allowed and prohibited activities” which might allow some countries to “carry out a range of military and other security-related activities”.

Congestion and crowding will grow in Antarctica, the Defence Force statement says, and key elements of the Treaty, such as the ban on extracting minerals, will come under increasing pressure.

At the same time, last year’s Antarctic Strategy by the Christchurch City Council’s marketing arm, ChristchurchNZ, is calling for increasing international involvement on the ice. That self-serving pitch is because about three-quarters of the world’s scientists flying to Antarctica go through Christchurch, earning the region an estimated $235 million, and it wants more. Another sign of disjointedness is the fact the foreign ministry sets Antarctic policy rather than Antarctica New Zealand, which gets about $25 million a year (plus millions through what’s called the Antarctic Science Platform) for science and logistical support.

“The new strategic environment requires a re-think of these approaches,” Brady says. “Working out what to do next is complicated and difficult.”

The way ahead will require clear-headed strategy and leadership, she says, and strategic investment in “capacity”. She’s advocating an Antarctic ambassador be established to coordinate New Zealand’s “whole of government” approach, including local government. It’s an idea that has been suggested in Australia and would mirror the situation for some countries in the Arctic – although the Trump administration cut the role of America's special envoy.

Brady says the ambassador would give the country leadership on a scale not seen for a long time in New Zealand-Antarctic affairs – “since the mid-‘90s”.

“Spending $250 million on rebuilding Scott Base is about the most stupid thing that I have heard of in years.” – Stuart Prior

Stuart Prior was head of New Zealand’s Antarctic policy from 1992 to 1999, including organising the so-called Ministerial on Ice.

Wellington-based Prior, the founder of consultancy Prior Group, says global interest in climate change and oceans as a food source puts the microscope on Antarctica, which, thanks to the Ross Dependency claim, makes it effectively part of the country’s territory. New Zealand’s opportunity is to become a focal point for international collaboration on topics like Antarctic science and marine research, he says. “The opportunities for young New Zealand scientists could be huge.”

Prior pans a recent announcement by Foreign Affairs Minister Winston Peters – who passed Newsroom’s request for comment to his ministry – to rebuild Scott Base at a cost of $250 million. The idea is “incomprehensible”, he says. “Spending $250 million on rebuilding Scott Base is about the most stupid thing that I have heard of in years.”

Why? Because it’s not needed, he says, adding: “We have to do things.” He suggests spending $50 million on upgrading Scott Base and earmarking $100 million for science.

“The key to New Zealand’s influence and achieving those broad goals ... is not in building what will be a hotel for VIPs on the ice, but in investing in those international science and related relationships that build a network that enables New Zealand to provide real leadership.”

It’s leadership that he clearly thinks can be reclaimed by this country, the so-called “honest broker”.

Prior thinks back to 1999’s trip by Upton to the ice. If the US or China called such a meeting today, some countries might ask what they’re up to, he says. “But New Zealand is not threatening.”

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